For years, I’ve thought that most American foods had more or less caught on across the world; after all, if McDonald’s and KFC are in nearly every country in the world, what else could there be?
Turns out that there’s a whole lot more to American food than hamburgers and fried chicken; and that a lot of this American food does not, in fact, go over well in international markets like Japan.
Earlier this year, our awesome guest poster Eryk from This Japanese Life did a roundup of the newest and strangest season beverages in Japan, including Salty Watermelon Pepsi, Espressoda, and . . . root beer?
The Japanese don’t really “get” root beer. Most Japanese find it kind of gross, and some even call it “America’s natto.”
Some of the commentors on the article pointed out that root beer isn’t really known in other parts of the world, either. I don’t know why I hadn’t recognized that root beer is pretty uniquely American, but I guess I just assumed that if Coke and Pepsi had made a warpath across the world that the rest of the soda fountain came along too.
But Japan’s aversion to root beer goes beyond just an unfamiliarity. One of the ingredients in traditional root beer is anise, an herb used in foods all across the world. It’s used in Japan too, but for a a different purpose — medicine. The same way America flavors its medicine with things like menthol or whatever the hell they flavor cough syrup with, Japan flavors a good deal of its medicine with anise.
So imagine taking a swig of a drink and tasting something that registered to you as medicinal. Pretty much a non-starter, unless you’re into purple drank.
As a result, root beer isn’t available across much of Japan (American military bases being an exception), and there isn’t really much of a demand for it.
Peanut butter is another food popular in America that hasn’t really translated over well into the Japanese market; which, to Americans living in Japan, might just be the Worst Thing Ever.
Americans love their peanut butter. In the land of George Washington Carver, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, peanut butter cookies, and other peanut butter-based confections are practically dietary staples. Hell, I’ve seen more than a few people just eat spoonfuls of peanut butter right out of the jar. (College does strange things to people.)
Given all that, it might be shocking to find out that the American favorite Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups weren’t available in Japan until this year.
Like I mentioned earlier, there are other forms of peanut butter in Japan, but they aren’t really peanut butter in the way most Americans understand. There’s something called “peanut cream,” which is apparently more like peanut-flavored frosting than regular-ol’ peanut butter. There’s “peanut whip” too, which is possibly even farther from peanut butter than peanut cream.
In retrospect, I’m not really sure why this was such a big surprise to me. After all, it’s not like all Japanese foods been welcomed with open arms into the American market, and those that do make it over are often changed up (see: sushi abominations).
If you’re in the US, enjoy your root beer and peanut butter (but maybe not at the same time . . .), just don’t expect to be able to be able to do the same if you travel to Japan.
Oh, and just so we’re all clear: crunchy peanut butter is better than creamy.